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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Lodz Ghetto’ a Flawed but Compassionate Documentary

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The textile center of Lodz in Poland once housed the second largest concentration of Jewry in Europe. Like many ghettos, it was a center of intense religious, intellectual and artistic activity, as well as the myriad joys and tribulations of day-to-day life. But, from 1940 to 1945, Lodz and its ghetto changed, terrifyingly. It became, successively, a prison, a wartime factory area and, finally, a way station for the charnel house.

In 1940, 200,000 of the city’s Jews were forced into the 4 1/2-square-mile ghetto. Penned in by barbed wire and German edicts, they were eventually joined by more than 20,000 refugees from neighboring countries. By the time Lodz was liberated in January, 1945, only about 800 survivors were left. The rest either died of starvation or illness or were herded off to Auschwitz and other camps during the frenzied slaughter ordered by Heinrich Himmler in his Reich’s twilight.

Words can’t do justice to tragedy and suffering on this scale. Neither, unfortunately, can “Lodz Ghetto” (at the Beverly Center Cineplex), an often admirable documentary that falls into the trap of overdramatizing material that never needs it.

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Faced with nearly unimaginable horror--hospitals emptied of the sick by ghetto police, children shot before their parents’ eyes--only the simplest, purest eloquence is needed. Yet co-directors Alan Adelson and Kathryn Taverna push so hard for tragedy, trying to elaborate these cries of grief into a filmic Bach chorale, that they lose some force and anguish.

The script is developed from testimony preserved in journals and the speeches of the ghetto’s controversial “elder,” Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. In their excellent source book for the movie, published by Viking, Adelson and Robert Lapides arrange these segments chronologically, with the speakers identified. But, in the film, since no voice is identified until the closing credits, they merge into one universal, almost abstracted chorus--which distances us.

So does the diction of the narrators, who include actors David Warrilow and Theodore Bikel. It’s a bit too crisp, the shadings of hurt too expertly calculated. Sometimes, it sounds as incongruous as Orson Welles or William Conrad, in sonorous tones of pear-shaped passion, lamenting about their imminent starvation.

Least convincing is novelist Jerzy Kosinski--an irony, since he was born in Lodz and lost his parents there. Kosinski plays Rumkowski with a strident, staccato Nazi-villain voice. Yet is it likely that this self-conscious leader would have revealed himself so unequivocally in public oratory? In Adelson’s book, Oskar Rosenfeld (voiced here by several actors, including Bikel) describes Rumkowski’s demeanor as “well-mannered, clean, calm, benevolent.” Instead, Kosinski gives us the inner man--"cunning, spiteful, treacherous, predatory"--with no counterpoint between appearance and reality.

There was a horrible schism in Rumkowski. A Zionist who devoted his later life to charity work for orphans, he wound up sending children off to be murdered. Unlike the elder of the Warsaw Ghetto, he didn’t take poison rather than aid the deportations. And unlike Warsaw, Lodz didn’t rise up in futile but glorious revolt. That’s the core of this story’s terror.

To the extent that this flawed but compassionate documentary reveals that terror, it remains valuable. The words of the Lodz inhabitants--the poetic journalists Rosenfeld and Josef Zelkowicz, both of whom died in Auschwitz (along with Rumkowski); the pragmatic survivor Jakub Poznanski; the idealistic student Dawid Sierakowiak, who died at 19 of tuberculosis, and the earthy Irena Liebman, who survives to this day--all are the most powerful demonstration possible of something we often characterize too glibly as the human spirit.

That spirit can be pure and courageous, like the words that are its weapons here. It can be foul and murderous, like the Nazi tyrants. Or it can be simple and ingenuous, like most of the victims. “This tragedy has no heroes,” Rosenfeld wrote. “And why call it a tragedy? Because the pain does not touch upon something human, on another’s heart, but rather is something incomprehensible, linked with the cosmos. . . . In the beginning, God created the Ghetto. . . .”

Whatever their failings here--and there are more than a few--in re-creating that ghetto, Adelson and Taverna help rekindle an indispensable flame.

‘LODZ GHETTO’

A Jewish Heritage Society presentation. Producer/script Alan Adelson. Directors Kathryn Taverna, Adelson. Music Wendy Blackstone. Cinematography Eugene Squires, Jozef Piwkowski. Editor Taverna. Still-photo cinematography Gary Becker, Taverna. Voices Jerzy Kosinski, Nicholas Kepros, David Warrilow, Barbara Rosenblat, Gregory Gordon, Theodore Bikel.

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.


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